Sending a message

HOUGHTON – Well over 100 Michigan Technological University students gathered Wednesday to learn how to change cultures that permit rape and sexual assault against women.

The evening began with a speech by Russ Funk, a nationally known activist dedicated to helping men combat sexual violence, and continued with a Take Back the Night candlelight vigil and walk through campus, where students showed their solidarity for the cause.

Hopefully, according to Funk, the event – and the leadership of those in attendance – will make Tech’s campus safer.

Students could make a difference, he said, by showing that “at Tech, rape and sexual assault are not tolerated. Another thing is to work with younger folks.”

“Everyone believes rape has no place on a campus like Tech,” he added, noting that “rape is not inevitable. Domestic violence is not inevitable. Nobody is born a rapist. It’s a choice that someone makes.”

But despite many good intentions, nearly one in three women and one in seven men nationwide are victims of rape or dating violence during the course of a college career.

That didn’t surprise a handful of female students at the event, who said they’d all known someone who’d been a victim.

Madison Ziems said men at Tech were generally respectful compared to their counterparts at other schools, but believes there is still a sexual abuse problem on campus.

“As long as it happens, it’s a problem,” she said.

Many of the students in attendance were members of Tech’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. Army ROTC student Matthew McLaughlin acknowledged the military has had some past issues with sexual abuse, but said events like Wednesday’s, along with classwork emphasizing respect and sexual equity, would help build a safer and more equitable military.

“We’re going to be the leaders, and this kind of thing is going to shape the way the Army is for the next few years,” McLaughlin said.

Fellow Army ROTC cadet Alec Bigalke said the event helped him realize that choosing to stand up against abuse and disrespectful language, as well as actual acts of violence, was the most powerful way to affect change.

“Everybody individually has to stand up. If one stands up, more will follow,” Bigalke said.

Disrespect of women, even in all-male situations, is the beginning of the path that leads to sexual violence, Funk explained in his speech. That begins at a young age, he said, when little boys are told to “stop acting like a girl.”

“Being a girl should not be a putdown. It should be a compliment,” he said.

Funk said that later in life, locker room talk and other situations where men might put women down contribute to assumptions that violence might be acceptable.

“The moment we start thinking it’s OK to disrespect women is the moment it makes it possible to rape,” he said.

Confronting this disrespect can be hard for a guy, who could face social retaliation, he admitted, turning to an example where he wished he’d been more assertive. Also, it’s unlikely you’ll change the mind of the person spouting the disrespectful language, he said. But what you might do, he said, “change the mind of every man in that locker room.”

Also, he added, if you do stand up for what’s right, you’re likely to get more support from fellow men than expected.

Funk said rape and sexual violence, unlike other crimes, tend to locate the shame around the crime’s victims, rather than the perpetrator. That’s why events like Wednesday’s are so important, he said.

“The Take Back the Night movement is here to take away the shame and the threats,” he said.

Wednesday’s event was sponsored by Tech’s Office of Academic and Community Conduct, Tech’s Outdoor Adventure and Wellness Program, and the Barbara Kettle Gundlach Shelter Home.